The Commons, Short and Sweet

I am always trying to figure out how to explain the idea of the commons to newcomers who find it hard to grasp.  In preparation for a talk that I gave at the Caux Forum for Human Security, near Montreux, Switzerland, I came up with a fairly short overview, which I have copied below.  I think it gets to the nub of things. 

The commons is….

  • A social system for the long-term stewardship of resources that preserves shared values and community identity. 
  • A self-organized system by which communities manage resources (both depletable and and replenishable) with minimal or no reliance on the Market or State.
  • The wealth that we inherit or create together and must pass on, undiminished or enhanced, to our children.  Our collective wealth includes the gifts of nature, civic infrastructure, cultural works and traditions, and knowledge.
  • A sector of the economy (and life!) that generates value in ways that are often taken for granted – and often jeopardized by the Market-State.

There is no master inventory of commons because a commons arises whenever a given community decides it wishes to manage a resource in a collective manner, with special regard for equitable access, use and sustainability. 

The commons is not a resource.  It is a resource plus a defined community and the protocols, values and norms devised by the community to manage its resources.  Many resources urgently need to be managed as commons, such as the atmosphere, oceans, genetic knowledge and biodiversity.

There is no commons without commoning – the social practices and norms for managing a resource for collective benefit.  Forms of commoning naturally vary from one commons to another because humanity itself is so varied.  And so there is no “standard template” for commons; merely “fractal affinities” or shared patterns and principles among commons.  The commons must be understood, then, as a verb as much as a noun.  A commons must be animated by bottom-up participation, personal responsibility, transparency and self-policing accountability.

One of the great unacknowledged problems of our time is the enclosure of the commons, the expropriation and commercialization of shared resources, usually for private market gain.  Enclosure can be seen in the patenting of genes and lifeforms, the use of copyrights to lock up creativity and culture, the privatization of water and land, and attempts to transform the open Internet into a closed, proprietary marketplace, among many other enclosures.

Enclosure is about dispossession.  It privatizes and commodifies resources that belong to a community or to everyone, and dismantles a commons-based culture (egalitarian co-production and co-governance) with a market order (money-based producer/consumer relationships and hierarchies).  Markets tend to have thin commitments to localities, cultures and ways of life; for any commons, however, these are indispensable.

The classic commons are small-scale and focused on natural resources; an estimated two billion people depend upon commons of forests, fisheries, water, wildlife and other natural resources for their everyday subsistence.  But the contemporary struggle of commoners is to find new structures of law, institutional form and social practice that can enable diverse sorts of commons to work at larger scales and to protect their resources from market enclosure. 

Open networks are a natural hosting infrastructure for commons.  They provide accessible, low-cost spaces for people to devise their own forms of governance, rules, social practices and cultural expression. That’s why the Internet has spawned so many robust, productive commons: free and open source software, Wikipedia and countless wikis, more than 10,000 open access scholarly journals, the open educational resources (OER) movement, the open data movement, sites for collaborative art and culture, Fab Labs that blend global design with local production, and much else. In an age of capital-driven network platforms such as Facebook, Google and Uber, however, digital commons must take affirmative steps to protect the wealth they generate.

New commons forms and practices are needed at all levels – local, regional, national and global – and there is a need for new types of federation among commoners and linkages between different tiers of commons.  Trans-national commons are especially needed to help align governance with ecological realities and serve as a force for reconciliation across political boundaries.  Thus to actualize the commons and deter market enclosures, we need innovations in law, public policy, commons-based governance, social practice and culture.  All of these will manifest a very different worldview than now prevails in established governance systems, particularly those of the State and Market.

*                        *                        *



New products

Wonderful explanation! A tiny "but": What about newly created products? Yes, traditionally commons are about using and maintaining (mostly natural) resources, but in the digital realm new commons are permanently emerging by creating new things. Take, for instance, the open hardware movement. IMHO, this is definitely a commons movement too. The focus on resources only sounds a bit backward oriented.

Ok, in further cycles of creation previously created things can be viewed as resources to create new things, but I find it useful to explicitly mention these new products, because they are a goal of commoning in this field. The commons umbrella should be large enough to cover them too ;-)

Digital commons, too!


This text was created for an audience that is mostly focused on natural resources, but you are absolutely right that it should make more explicit mention of the digital realm and its many, many commons.  Not only are open source, open hardware, and various commons platforms creating new sorts of economic and cultural production, they are affecting HOW we manage traditional natural resource commons as the digital and physical blur together (or as I call them, "eco-digital commons").  I am thinking of wiki-like systems for aggregating environmental data and "participatory sensing" projects that enable individuals to submit data on bird counts and butterfly populations, and so produce entirely new sorts of knowledge.  There are also "trans-local" networks of cooperation that bypass centralized hierarchies and thereby empower commoners.  

So, thank you for the suggestion.  The digital commons (and more broadly, cultural commons) need to be represented in this introduction to the commons.  I will add a new paragraph into this text shortly.  David